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It’s always fun when the Vikings play the Packers in an NFL game. So this Sunday will be fun. But this one also counts. Big time.
It was fun for a while when the two teams met in Minneapolis six weeks ago, but not for long. The Packers did a 30-13 number on the Vikings that day, and it was one of those woeful off-days for Minnesota. The Vikings have had a couple others of those this season, such as the 20-3 opener at San Francisco, and the 38-7 drubbing absorbed at home against Seattle.
The Packers, meanwhile, looked like one of the NFL’s true elite teams until they went to Denver and the wheels came off. The Broncos clobbered the Packers, and ever since then we’ve been watching to see if the Pack is back, or if they’re still trying to get those wheels aligned. Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers lost his swagger. The Packers seemed to get it all back together, but then they went out to Arizona last Sunday and were embarrassed 38-8 by the Cardinals, who sacked Rodgers eight times and returned two of his three fumbles for touchdowns.
It was the perfect scenario, coming in mid-afternoon, because it left room for the Vikings, whose game was switched to nighttime, to vault back into a tie for first place in the NFC’s North Division. In one of the more impressive performances-under-pressure in Vikings lore, they throttled Eli Manning and thrashed the Giants 49-17.
That leaves the Vikings and Packers deadlocked with 10-5 records going into the final game of the season, so along with the usual fun of the rivalry, the game will decide the division champion. There will be no swaggering. We are finding that, great as he is, Aaron Rodgers cannot do it alone for the Packers, and when he is left alone, the Packers aren’t very good. The Vikings have a distinct edge when Teddy Bridgewater thinks, passes, and occasionally scrambles or runs, but always with the threat of running back Adrian Peterson keeping the defense honest.
Last weekend was a great one for those fans who just like exciting football. It was not a good weekend for those fanatics who bet on games or who think they have this NFL business all figured out. Take me, for instance. I projected that even while neither team would enter the playoffs as divisional champ, the hottest two teams in football are the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins. I went so far as to predict they would make it all the way to the Super Bowl, where Seattle would prevail.
In my personal ranking of who’s hot right now, I put Seattle an eyelash ahead of Arizona and Carolina, and all three are in the NFC – where the Vikings and Packers are breathing down their necks. In the AFC, I submitted, Pittsburgh was hot and had risen above New England, Denver, and Cincinnati. The Cardinals now make that a crowd at the top.
So what happens on the very next round of games? Pittsburgh was stifled 20-17 by Baltimore, and Seattle struggled to find its offense before yielding 23-17 to the St. Louis Rams. I still like both of those teams making a serious run at the playoffs, and maybe the lost weekend won’t hurt either . The Steelers learned that big Ben Roethlisberger can’t do it alone, either, and the Seahawks found that Russell Wilson was almost magical the way he kept finding ways to win without star running back Marshawn Lynch, but it had to catch up with them. Lynch, by the way, is back from hernia surgery this week and ready to go.
Battling for last Sunday’s biggest surprises, the Carolina Panthers are no longer undefeated, after a 14-0 start. Atlanta, of all teams, came through for a stunning 20-13 victory that ended when Cam Newton was stripped of the ball on what might have been a tying touchdown pass at the wire.
And the proud Patriots were humbled by the New York Jets, who held the lead until Tom Brady fashioned a 17-3 rally at the finish to tie the game 20-20. The Patriots won the coin toss and chose to kick, later captain Matthew Slater said he assumed by choosing to kick, he could also choose which direction he wanted to kick. But no. The Jets took the ball, and Mark Fitzpatrick completed passes of 48 and 20 yards to power a drive that reached the 6. Then former Gopher Eric Decker ran into the end zone, turned right, and sped under a lop from Fitzpatrick for the winning touchdown in a 26-20 triumph.
Denver, which started 7-0 but have since been struggling with Peyton Manning out, were left clinging to first place when they faced Cincinnati Monday night. But Kansas City had risen to challenge the Broncos by reaching a 10-5 record with a simple formula: win every game. The Chiefs beat Cleveland 17-13 Sunday, which was their ninth straight triumph – after a 1-5 start to the season.
If you get your fill of college bowl games, be aware that the classic Vikings-Packers game has been switched to a 7:30 p.m. start by those slick NFL officials, who probably figured it might not be quite cold enough in mid-day. But meantime, look for one other classic finale to the regular season when Seattle (9-6) tries to get it all back together at Arizona 13-2).